Last year, I worked on the screenplay for the short film version of The Green Bench. Unlike novels, screenplays are intended to be a group effort. Lots of people bring their abilities and you won’t be happy if you are not flexible. The major plot points and themes, yes, fight for those. However, if you’re fortunate, actors will breathe life into your characters in new ways, chemistry happens between a group of actors that you cannot plan for, the camera crew lights and frames according to their expertise, the director has his or her creative vision, and so on. The director’s creative vision may align with yours and they will still bring new ideas and shading to scenes and to the work as a whole. All of the cast and crew names are on a film for very good reasons.
As with short stories, short films are all about distilling down to the essential elements. Short stories done well are more difficult than novels – in longer works, you might be able to pause to explore or add in another point of view. There is no room for that in short forms. When we got a script that was ready to shoot, it turned out to be an absolute joy on set. Everyone was upbeat and professional. Whenever a crew assembles, sometimes the family is functional and sometimes not. This time it was. There were a handful of smaller parts I wrote with friends in mind and they delivered flawlessly. It’s rare to have that voice in your head be the same one on set and it was pure joy to experience.
Now I am working to expand that short work into a longer one. Oh boy! After all that distillation, now it is time to broaden, develop and enlarge. I’ve had the great good fortune to get to know poet Brendan Constantine and he gave me notes as only a poet can on the short version. Poets look at the small, the minute. If you’ve never asked a poet to give you notes, do. It’s a whole new world! Things I would never have thought of and, perhaps counterintuitively, gave me a few jumping off points to expand the work. For example, is there anyone else in one particular scene that is not referenced who would logically be in the background? Who else is impacted by Evan’s illness? I saw right away that his best friend needs to be a part of the larger story. What is more interesting to explore, before or after? In this case, after is where all the drama lives. I don’t yet know if I will pull it off successfully, but it’s stretching me in unexpected ways and the unexpected journey is the most fun and satisfying.
Why do we write certain stories? There are probably as many answers as there are writers. Growing up, I wanted to write a novel – I finally realized it was a question of when. I had to start or it was never going to happen. At the time, I was enamored of scuba diving and wanted to explore that on the page. Daydreams, what ifs, fragments of overheard conversations, curiosity and a few unknowns go into the mix when I’m writing (more of a pantster than a plotter).
I remember the chlorine-scented moment at our first pool-side scuba class when I realized I was really going to have to do it myself. That moment of whoa! helped me write the novel. No one was going to put my tank on for me, no one else could breathe for me or take that giant step off the deck or monitor my gauges. I was responsible for my survival. Yes, you dive with at least one other person and yes, you learn what you are doing before you enter the ocean, but in large part, as under the sea, so in front of the screen. Taking a leap into the ocean helped me to start and keep putting words on the page until I had a book. And with both, once I was into it, the fun took over.
Diving the giant kelp forest off Catalina Island feels like flying. It’s so beautiful. Seals came up and blew bubbles in imitation of those from our tanks. Shafts of sunlight danced through giant stalks of swaying green as bright orange Garibaldi darted in and out. It’s a magical experience and I wanted to give that to readers, plus a “what if” experience of things going to extremes.
What dead weight have I shed? The dead weight of awful generational patterns and anger at my damaged and capriciously cruel mother; certainly of relationships that did not work out. I shed the dead weight of behaving as if my time here is unlimited.
Do you make New Years’ resolutions? Set goals? This year, I am trying something different and using Danielle LaPorte’s The Desire Map. How would you like to feel when you acheive your goals, finish the book, the script, the performance? To avoid the emptiness of spending years only to find there is no there there, try her approach.
Here’s a quote that will resonate with many artists, particularly if there’s trauma in your background:
If you don’t believe you have the right to be here, there will never be enough space for your true self to show up. If you don’t believe that you’re worthy of having your desires fulfilled, then you’ll always feel more empty than full. No amount of focus or positive thinking is going to help you manifest and sustain your definition of success.
She gives suggestions on self-worth and many other aspects of the process. Please feel free to leave your goals, hope, aspirations for next year in the comments.
What does writing improv look like? Like the Live Write at David Rocklin’s Roar Shack in Los Angeles. Here is how he describes the Live Write:
Live Write! A thrilling feat of writerly improvisation! As you arrive, you get to vote on a prompt. The winning prompt will be revealed to four intrepid authors – two of us and two of you audience types, onstage for all to see! We’ll all write to that prompt while our musical guest plays – it’s going to be impossible not to listen, but no one said this was going to be easy. Then the Live Writers will each read their just-written words, and the audience gets to vote! The winner will develop the work into a finished piece to be read at the next show.
With acting improv, it’s important to slow down, listen, trust that you can be quiet onstage sometimes, and to play. It’s supposed to be fun. Have fun! With writing improv, the fun and play still apply, but it’s more about allowing ideas to flow, to let the story appear and run. Let the characters go and follow them to see what happens next.
Neither form responds well to force and that probably holds true for any art in general. Both benefit from intelligence and knowledge and love of research. Of course there are situations – often involving deadlines – where you have to power through and get something done, but as the year winds down, try lightening up. Write a sketch or improvise…. Have fun. Play. Let your work, whether it’s on the page or the stage, breathe. Trust. And let us know what happens…..
Why do you want to create? Why do you write, act, compose, play? If you don’t know, spend some time and get clear on the why. That “why” is the engine that drives you. It keeps you going after rejection – and rejection always comes. It helps if there is some aspect of service in your answer, some greater good. If it is only about you and you are down for whatever reason, you won’t be able to take action, keep writing, finish the book, the play, go to the audition or the gig. If it’s only you and you cannot show up or get yourself up off the floor, it all stops. If there’s something you a driven to say to your audience – do you know who your audience is? – that can keep you taking action regardless of how you feel on any given day. “They are counting on me” or “this must change” gives you power when your normal everyday strength wanes.
For the broader view, here’s Saul Bass’ Oscar winning short from 1968 Why Man Creates (yes, it is of its time)
Perhaps since it’s October and Halloween is just around the corner, the dark, the spooky, the unseen are more on my mind. Robert A. Johnson, a Jungian psychologist, wrote a slim book, Owning Your Own Shadow: Understanding the Dark Side of the Psychethat is very helpful for artists. He’s also the author of She, He, and The Fisher King and the Handless Maiden. Most of the circles I spend time in are made up of artists of one kind or another: writers, actors, improvisers, musicians and so on. Most are functioning perfectly well to all outward appearances, but I’d wager most carry a heavy shadow. With a large measure of creativity apparently comes a large shadow.
Every artist I’ve met deals with depression and loneliness at one time or another, some nearly all of the time. Some also act out or have difficulties in a variety of relationships. In his book, Johnson writes:
“A friend asked me recently why so many creative people have such a miserable time of it. History abounds with stories of shocking or eccentric behavior among the great. Narrow creativity always brings a narrow shadow with it, while broader talents call up a greater portion of the dark. Schumann, the composer, went mad; the world knows about the very dark side of Picasso’s life; and everyone hears stories about local geniuses with their unusual habits. While those with the largest talent seems to suffer most, we all must be aware of how we use our creativity – and of the dark side that accompanies our gifts. To make a work of art, to say something kind, to help others, to beautify the house, to protect the family – all these acts will have an equal weight on the opposite side of the scale and can lead us into sin. We cannot refuse our creativity or stop expressing ourselves in this way; yet we can be aware of this dynamic and make some small but conscious gesture to compensate for it.”
The few things I’ve learned so far from the Alexander Technique at Body Chance are that your head is always in motion, your head and neck are attached behind your nose (focus on that while writing or walking and see what happens), your arm is a larger-than-imagined hinge and the glide hinges are at the center of your breastbone, and to relax (as before auditions) let your jaw go. The jaw is a two-part hinge – you only need the first gliding part and if you relax into that first movement of the hinge, breathing and general body relaxation follow. I am beginning to see how Benedikt Negro stays present and appears lighter than air in his performances.
Studying clowning, movement, improv – any one of these is another way into creating characters for writing or acting. Benedikt taught us that the foundation for clowning is entering a scene with one energy and exiting with another. It reminds me of one of the things Rob Roberge teaches about dialog in a scene: it’s about characters saying “no” to each other until the final “no.” There is one energy in hoping for Yes and another once No is received. Or vice versa. Something in a scene must shift for an audience to remain engaged. And stillness to notice the shift. The master of using the stillness – silence itself – to change energy and supply emotional information is Samuel Beckett.
We are constantly in movement, even while appearing still. The world is constantly in movement, even in the most serene still life. The globe turns. Emotions swirl within us. Think about your character’s body (or your own!) spring-loaded in gravity and see where it takes you.